Greater Bridgeport Transit (GBT) is in the process of transitioning its fleet of buses to zero tailpipe emission propulsion systems. We have been operating two battery electric buses (BEBs) for a total distance of 53,000 miles.
While they do not today, we are confident that BEBs will soon match diesel systems in performance. This is important for our operations.
To make this project work, GBT invested in facility improvements to accommodate the requisite charging infrastructure and fire suppression systems. We have made great progress in workforce development and have, among our staff, some of the state’s most knowledgeable people regarding BEBs.
Our initial concept was to replace 11 of the 57 buses in the fleet with cleaner propulsion systems. Today, we have five BEBs — about nine percent of the fleet. Moving to a zero-emission fleet is important to us and we are clear on the environmental, sustainability, and public health benefits of this effort.
While we were deploying the BEBs in the Bridgeport region, the General Assembly passed Public Act 22-25, which includes language prohibiting the procurement of buses with diesel propulsion systems by the end of this year:
“(2) On or after January 1, 2024, the State shall cease to procure, purchase, or lease any diesel fueled transit buses.”
This limitation is too soon. It will likely cause problems for the state’s effort to move toward zero emission buses.
There are several reasons that this language should be tempered this session. These include energy availability, fleet resilience from an energy perspective, fleet resilience against a catastrophe such as a lithium-ion battery fire, bus facility design, the cost and availability of buses, the lead time for their procurement, and the rapid evolution of the zero-emission bus industry.
If GBT’s fleet is to be converted entirely to BEBs, we will need to ensure that the energy is available at the maintenance facilities and understand the cost of bringing it there. We do not have the answer to this yet and have embarked on a project to better understand the availability of energy at our site. This effort also includes the identification of sites throughout the region, near distribution substations, which could also be used as charging facilities – bringing the facilities to the energy. A more measured approach to understanding energy availability, charging locations, and storage options is required.
If our diesel fueling systems fail, we can fuel the buses in other ways including portable tanks, alternate locations, and even directly from fuel tankers. No such alternatives exist for BEBs. There is a resilience to the energy availability in diesel systems that does not yet exist for BEBs. As a general manager for one of the transit operations in the state and having bottom line responsibility for deploying a fleet of buses every day, this is a problem which remains to be addressed.
No region of the state can tolerate the absence of its bus service for any significant duration. The Hamden BEB fire demonstrated the difficulty in extinguishing a lithium-ion battery. While there are some who say this is a “rare” event, I disagree. With only a limited number of these buses deployed in the country, we do not yet have enough information to state whether such events are, or will be, rare. More time is needed to understand this. There are others who will argue that diesel buses also have fires, and this is correct. However, a diesel propulsion system fire and a lithium-ion battery fire, as we have seen, are two different things.
Through our experience over the past several years, I have come to the conviction that no region’s bus fleet should be stored in a single facility when one or more of the propulsion systems includes a lithium-ion battery. Recent battery fires have altered the risk assessments associated with the deployment of the buses and, the mitigation measures must also be amended. The future of the transition to this new propulsion system requires the separation of the fleets into multiple facilities in order to ensure resilience. This requires more time and consideration.
The lead time for the purchase of these buses is already more than a year, and likely to get longer. Further, the cost of the BEBs is twice that of the buses they are to replace. This doubles the cost of replacing the state’s fleet and is likely to be a strain on the capital program now and in the future. A more measured approach is required to do the transition safely and successfully.
Through our efforts, we have witnessed the rapid evolution of the industry. Chargers bought two years ago are obsolete, the first buses deployed in Connecticut were 440 kWh, the ones in production today are 675 kWh, and the next generation uses 738 kWh battery packs. This deadline forces a rush to transition and, as a result, the state will not benefit from the evolution in bus design, technology, charging, facility design and advanced fire suppression.
The industry is improving, new standards for battery technology and safety are in development, and to limit the purchase of diesel propulsion systems so soon prohibits us from making the most of the advances that would be available to us with a more measured approach.
Today, we understand more than we did a year ago. This session, the General Assembly should revisit the language in Public Act No. 22-25 pertaining to the prohibition of the purchase of diesel propulsion systems and emendations made to allow for more time and a more measured approach.
Douglas Holcomb is General Manager/CEO of Greater Bridgeport Transit.